The Last Usable Hour might be one of our truest examples of serial poetry. Each of the book’s four sequences, and each of the poems that comprise them, stand as individual pieces and as chapters in a developing narrative.
Here are the first two stanzas of Sappho’s famous poem of jealousy, Fragment 31, as translated by Anne Carson:
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in
In her discussion of this fragment, Carson later remarks that “Sappho seems less interested in these characters as individuals than in the geometric figure that they form. The figure has three lines and three angles…The figure is a triangle.” But what of the fourth point we might plot in this construction—that of the reader, to whom Sappho speaks as much as she speaks to herself? If we allow this conceit, the figure is no longer a love triangle but a kind of love pyramid.
Nevertheless, a crucial line is still missing from this figure: the line that connects “that man…opposite you” to the reader. This allows for a conflicted and alluring transformation to occur in the reader’s mind, as he feels invited to locate himself in the man who stands between Sappho and the woman she desires.
And now here are lines from “All Else Fails,” the opening sequence in Deborah Landau’s second book, The Last Usable Hour:
As soon as he sits down I can tell I want to.
How long can I sit here not doing the thing
I want to do.
There’s a little hole in my boot.
Could you put your finger in it?
There is power in a silent beat
before answering a question, in a leaning in.
Across the table his mind right there
behind his talking face.
Throughout The Last Usable Hour, Landau appropriates old standards from the literary canon—lines of poetry, theories, archetypes, classical constructions of love—in order to invert, distort, and render them individual to her experience of desire.
You notice that in Landau’s construction there is no other woman. And yet the reader, the person to whom Landau speaks as much as she speaks to herself, is still present. Riffing off of the Sappho’s geometric figure, Landau’s model is thus an incomplete triangle, wherein the reader is again invited to locate himself in the man who is the object of her desire.
Since the sequencing of The Last Usable Hour is pivotal—in both senses of the word–to the development of Landau’s speaker, it’s worth examining the book’s four stages chronologically.
“All Else Fails,” as we’ve seen, is permeated by an erotics of looking. “I’d rather watch you doing it / than do it myself,” the book begins. In addition to the Sapphic structure, here Landau also appropriates the typical structure employed by heterosexual pornography: we watch a woman, who looks at us, speaks both to us and to a man, while she engages in an erotic act with this man—a construct that is altogether erotic for the viewer. But as steeped as Landau is in the pitch of her desire, she also confronts the absurdity of trying to lead a workaday life in the midst of this desire:
Everything gets more and more absurd.
The office and deskchair, the skin on the neck
eye cream, love, the hand-holding and bungled
attempts, watching the clock all night—2 a.m., 4
then daylight, sitting in my dress again
with cup and plate.
To work to work then back again
to bed, another night.
Elsewhere the absurd interrupts a poem with unpunctuated urgency: “Sleep then work then this then that day / and another night back on the bed / lying in an eros dumb and slackjawed.” It’s as though Landau is in conversation with Camus, who once devised a similar list in his exploration of the absurd:
It happens that the stage set collapses. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Begins”—this is important.
That her collection begins with the absurd as a jumping off point is important for Landau too, as it allows her, unlike Camus, to draw love and eros into the suffocating air that threatens her speaker. “In the middle of my wood,” she writes in this same sequence, “I found myself in a dark life.” If this inversion of the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy feels simple, it desires to be read as a segue into the book’s second sequence, “Blue Dark.” Omitted from Landau’s appropriation of Dante’s line is the phrase “the road” or “journey of my life,” standards among translators. By that same token, nowhere in this collection is there a guide, a divine poet to lead Landau through the world of a “thousand thousand souls / opening and closing / at will in the stillness.”
With the “Blue Dark” sequence, Landau introduces a sudden shift in her utterance—her lines grow clipped and fitful, and her voice reaches a new level of complexity to tell us that “the trouble with silence / is none ever was.” If “All Else Fails” occurs in a state of agitation and outburst toward an unnamed man, Landau’s second sequence takes place inside her own head, in the midst of a torpor. This lethargy and solitude is all the more pointed for its lack of a Virgil. Landau alone must confront that there is “no one left in the city / no one in the fields / no one coming no one going” who might help her navigate her way out of “the single loneliness” that “goes on breathing / all night // as if it were natural.”
The Last Usable Hour might be one of our truest examples of serial poetry. Each of the book’s four sequences, and each of the poems that comprise them, stand as individual pieces and as chapters in a developing narrative. Perhaps most astonishingly, Landau manages to end each sequence with a cliffhanger that configures the sequence after it. “We were heading toward the sloughing off,” she writes at the end of “Blue Dark,” “we were on the banks of it.”
So begins the book’s third sequence, “Dear Someone,” in which Landau assumes and subverts the archetype of the woman in distress. Though the epistolary address is nothing new in contemporary poetry, Landau uses “dear someone” as a refrain that penetrates and reshapes the multitudes of desperation she feels. This is, after all, not “dear you” or “dear anyone,” but “dear someone,” a designation in which there is implicit hope that a person is out there who might rescue Landua from the “little edge of pain” she walks along. One can’t help but think of Thomas Hardy’s tragic beauty Eustacia Vye, who sought the love of a man in order to solve her longing and met her end walking along the precipice of Shadwater Weir. For Landau too, this longing culminates in water, but the intensity of her desire to elude desperation pushes beyond mere love. Landau longs for her “someone” as a vessel into which she can pour herself to no longer be herself.
your emptiness has a lake in it deep and watery
with several temperaments milk cola beer
at night the selves are made of water
all the openings flooded streaming with rain
your emptiness has an aqueduct in it
selves rushing through channels
dissolving washing away in streaks
all night the selves are breaking themselves
you can’t get out from the drowning
Rather than go Vye’s route and choose death as an answer to the impossibility of solving her longing, Landau wrestles with this impossibility. “I exit through you not as myself,” she writes. Here Landau hammers into seven words the hard truth that, though her “someone” allows her to leave herself, the “I” still has to leave this someone as itself.
This impossibility ushers in “Welcome to the Future,” the book’s final sequence. The irrevocability and poise with which Landau confronts this new, post- apocalyptic landscape is what ultimately transcends the archetype of the woman in distress. Look how differently men figure into this passage than in the book’s first sequence:
welcome to the future
I have come into the aware
where the gilt edges are
look all the men
and the distance sitting in the roar
one waves as I pass him
and home isn’t here
and home isn’t there
True to her penchant for cliffhangers, Landau closes this collection with four stanzas that shroud the fate of our speaker in mystery, no less at risk than when she set out:
I could die here
and the hearsedriver
would take me out of this city
I’d say my name to him
as we crossed the Triboro
I’d say it softly the way he likes it
it would be the last time
I’d introduce myself that way
What’s stunning is the way Landau draws each of the book’s major elements into these eight final lines: she whispers her name coquettishly in the ear of Death, who has assumed the role of the guide, the driver, and the name of the “someone” for whom she longs, all of which allows her to depart from herself and her city. Yet Landau’s delicate use of “could” and “would” place these events, this conclusion, in a future we never get to read about in The Last Usable Hour. It’s a terrific comment on a life and future that are unknowable, and as far as cliffhangers go, it puts that old standard, to be continued, to shame.